The Ideology of Occupation

In an excellent recent article, leading Palestinian intellectual Edward Said cites the "astounding result" of a poll conducted among US citizens by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, according to which less than three or four percent of the sample had any idea that there was an Israeli occupation. This seems to confirm a general rule: as far as the Middle East is concerned, American public consciousness lags decades behind Israel’s. Obsolete Zionist propaganda, based on manufactured "facts" that no one in Israel would use anymore, is recycled by prominent American columnists (of the subspecies Thomas Friedman) as uncontroversial truth. "The main narrative model that dominates American thinking still seems to be Leon Uris‘ 1950 novel Exodus," says Edward Said: a narrative that collapsed in Israel itself about two decades ago.

In some senses, the Oslo "peace process" was a huge success for Israeli colonialism. The "ongoing negotiations" – which allow the Palestinians to choose between either willingly accepting Israel’s terms or having them imposed on them unilaterally – enabled Israel to expand its settlements on Palestinian lands with virtually no resistance. The Israeli "peace camp" was effectively soothed by false promises of "peace with settlements," American hegemony in the world media silenced any international criticism, and the "process" that was supposed to end Israeli colonialism broke down violently, with about twice as many Israeli settlers as seven years earlier.

However, not all the malicious objectives of the "peace process" succeeded so well. The attempt to take the Palestinian issue off the international agenda was not very successful and got crushed completely when the Intifada broke out. The Israeli attempt to convince the world that the occupation has ended and that the Palestinians are now free and thus responsible for their own suffering failed too. It failed thanks to perhaps the single wise step (not) taken by Arafat during these seven years, i.e. his refusal to declare his besieged enclaves "an independent Palestinian state." Such a declaration would have been disastrous to the Palestinians because their struggle against the Occupation would have been supplanted by a standard border-conflict between Israel and "Palestine" as two independent states – a safe way to bury the conflict altogether. Even the zealous attempts of pseudo-dovish Israeli intellectuals, such as writer Amos Oz, who in 1996 claimed the Palestinians were already free and independent, failed to obscure the basic fact that the Palestinians are living under a cruel Israeli occupation.

This may surprise 96 percent of Americans, but it is a known and accepted fact in Israel – so much so, that, recently, a "moderate" settler – David Moriah, chairman of the "Efrat settlers’ committee" – published an interesting ten-point article (in Hebrew only) explaining – not why the Occupation is not an occupation – but why it is "one of the most justified cases of occupation in world history." Since his eloquent arguments concisely comprise almost the entire ideological arsenal of the non-fundamentalist Israeli hawks (and mainstreamers, and, ludicrously enough, of many "doves" as well), and since his arguments have been propagated worldwide, it is worthwhile to consider them one by one.

"1. The Occupation was an act of self-defence against an aggressor that rejected the international resolutions to divide the land."

This argument – and several of the following ones too – represent a universally popular strategy: distracting the discussion from the present to the past. History contains a myriad of details; you can always find some detail that will embarrass your opponent. And if you can’t find one, invent one – who can check? Moreover, there are always several competing historical narratives for any set of events. Israelis (or Palestinians) first endorse the Israeli (or Palestinian) historical narrative, and then – surprise, surprise – they find out that all the Israeli (or Palestinian) claims are perfectly anchored in history. It is a vicious circle.

We shall not fall into this historical trap here. Historical arguments will be dealt with only en passant; critical Israeli historians and sociologists have done a great deal of work exposing the myths and lies of the Zionist historical narrative, but we shall not use their results here. A short remark concerning Israel’s selective hearing will have to suffice. The celebrated UN resolution on the establishment of a Jewish state (every Israeli town has a street called "November 29th," commemorating the day in 1947 when the resolution was adopted) had a second part, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian (Arab) state too. Israel has been rejecting this part ever since. Deriving legitimacy for Israel’s own existence from half a resolution is problematic enough; deriving legitimacy for the Occupation of the Palestinians from the very resolution that granted them a state, is utterly absurd.

And, by the way, if "international resolutions" are the ultimate code of virtuous national conduct, how about several other ones, like Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, calling on Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, or the idiotic declaration that was canceled, and is being revived now in Durban, equating Zionism with Racism?

All these counter-arguments may be true, but again: the discussion should concentrate on the present. History is no escape. No matter how the Occupation was born 34 years ago – as self-defence or as aggression – there is no justification whatsoever to deprive millions of Palestinians living now of their basic human and political rights. Punishing people for alleged sins of their ancestors contradicts each and every moral principle. "Everyone shall die," says Jeremiah (31:30), "for his own iniquity." As with some UN resolutions, Israel is now implementing only the first part of Jeremiah’s verse.

"2. It is obvious that the aggressor was part of a struggle aimed at destroying the Israeli political entity, and massacre of individual Jews was also most likely to occur. (Let us not forget that leaders of that nation were willing to participate in the ‘final solution’ for the Jews on behalf of Nazi Germany.)"

Again, the heart of the argument is historical, and we shall not follow it back to the past. But what is the function of such an argument for the present reader? It is clearly meant to supplant the present power relations by their very opposite. Israel has one of the strongest armies in the world, on a level with those of superpowers like France or Britain. It possesses not only the most sophisticated American weapons for air, sea and land warfare, but also intelligence backup from outer space as well as atomic, chemical and biological arsenals. It has some 100,000 regular soldiers and three or four times more in reserve. Israel’s military force has been built so as to defeat all the Arab armies together. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have about 30,000 to 40,000 lightly-armed men, defined in the agreements as "policemen" and equipped accordingly. Their weapons include pistols, revolvers and hand grenades, not to mention sharp knives and very big stones. They have no artillery, no helicopters, no jets, no navy, no tanks, no armoured vehicles and no bulldozers. They have no heavy weapons of any kind except for homemade mortar shells and explosives, and probably a limited smuggled stock of antitank missiles. They have no satellites, no sophisticated communication systems and no super-computers – and, unlike Israel, they do not receive 3 billion dollars per year of American military aid.

When the Israeli Goliath is crushing Palestinian David with such an overwhelming superiority, an especially strong ideological twist is necessary in order to turn these power relations upside down. The manipulation starts with a hypothetical "massacre of Jews" that could have happened but never did (unlike several actual massacres of Palestinians, from 1948 to very recently), and ends up, expectedly, by evoking Nazi Germany.

"3. There was no independent nation in the occupied territories, but a mixture of inhabitants, and the only country that had any linkage to the area (Jordan) renounced it publicly."

Again, the past tense is used. Golda Meir made the notorious claim that "there is no Palestinian people." It is quite ironic that Jews, whose own nationhood has been denied by many non-Jews and Jews alike (but emphasised consistently by Zionists and anti-Semites) doubt the nationhood of others. Indeed, Israel has been doing its very best to divide the Palestinians into numerous subgroups, following the ancient Roman wisdom of "divide and rule." There are Palestinians "within" (inside Israel, further divided into "Druze," "Bedouins," "Christians," "Moslems," etc., divisions strengthened and constantly manipulated by Israel), Palestinians "without" (refugees outside historical Palestine) and Palestinians in the occupied territories, themselves divided by Israel, in contradiction to its obligation to regard the Territories as a single unit, into scores of disconnected enclaves ("areas" A, B, C, etc.). In spite of this brutal policy of division, there seems to be little doubt that there is a Palestinian people, definitely to a fuller extent than there is a Jewish one.

But all of this is beside the point. Human beings have rights – including political rights – even if they are not a nation. Since 1967, Israel has been vetoing any settlement that might grant political rights to the Palestinians. Israel offers the Palestinians neither independence nor annexation. One could only applaud the recent suggestion of the Libyan Foreign Minister Shalgam at Durban, that "Jews and Arabs must learn to live together in one democratic and non-racist state"; but Israel rejects this solution too: for fear of losing Jewish majority, it never offered to annex the Palestinians. It is interested only in robbing their land and natural resources, while depriving them of any rights, both individually and collectively.

(We will analyze other justifications for the Occupation in the second part of this article.)

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at